Stephen Pribil—the Invisibility Man

Here are three photographs out of a possible six from the photo-archive of the famous newspaper  El Mundo of Argentina. Interestingly, they are stamped 1st April 1935. Now, I don’t know if the Spanish, or indeed the Argentinians, reserve the 1st of April for tricks, leg-pulls, spoofs, scams or other deceptions, but if Dr Pribil, a Hungarian oculist, was deliberately playing a trick on journalists with his demonstration of ‘Invisibility  Rays’, then he certainly went to a lot of trouble to do it.

According to the typewritten labels on the back of each photograph Pribil placed three objects—a teddy bear, a bronze statuette and an opaque china vase -- in his apparatus—basically a wooden box fronted by a picture frame behind which is a sort of slated affair. Out of the back of this box electric cables are connected to a supply. Unfortunately, the two photos showing how the objects gradually fade away are missing, but the last photo does show that all the objects have now disappeared.’ They are in the same place, perfectly tangible ‘, the caption points out, ‘but are completely invisible’.

It would seem, however, that this was no one-off April Fool’s joke, for eighteen months later, in October 1936, the American magazine Modern Mechanix, ran a four page article focussing on the ‘invisibility‘ claims of both Pribil and another Hungarian, Adam Gosztonyi. The latter demonstrated how he could make a female singer ‘disappear’ and reappear using an apparatus he had invented, while Pribil once again showed how inanimate objects—this time some cigarettes and a picture of a Spanish girl – when placed in his special box could also be made to disappear and reappear. This time, however, he invited onlookers to handle the objects to ensure that they were real. Once again, Pribil insisted that his ‘invisible rays‘ were responsible for the effect.

Some issues need to be addressed here.  Modern Mechanix described Pribil as a ‘professor of optics’, which implies that he was a university teacher. However, it seems unlikely that any academic institution would look favourably on one of its staff touring America for eighteen months or more with such preposterous claims. Moreover, the Net has produced no evidence that Pribil, who looks no more than thirty five in his photo, ever carved out a career as a scientist. So what happened to him? Did he adopt a stage name and become a magician ? Or did he return to his old job as an optician in downtown Budapest?  Suggestions please, Jotwatchers. [R.R.]

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